Tuesday, September 15, 2009

DeBunking the Orange Blossom Myth, by Seth Bramson

For many years, because of the wonderful publicity generated by the City of Miami beginning shortly after its founding in July, 1896, it was believed that the legendary Henry Flagler extended his fabled railroad to the shores of Biscayne Bay because Julia Tuttle, the "mother of Miami," sent him some orange blossoms following the great freezes of December of 1894 and January and February of 1895.

Wonderful story. Totally false!

Mrs.Tuttle had beseeched first Henry Plant, the builder of the hotels and railroads in central Florida and on the state's west coast, to extend his railroadacross the state, but Mr. Plant rejected the idea. Without a moment's hesitation, she began pleading with Mr. Flagler to extend his railroad from West Palm Beach to the barely-a-pioneer-outpost 65 miles south, but was met with the same negative response. As Mr. Flagler pointed out, there was simply no reason to make the not inconsiderable expenditure. With the 1894 and '95 freezes, Mrs.Tuttle knew that her time had come, and in a telegram to Mr. Flagler in early March, 1895, she wrote,"Region around shores of Biscayne Bay untouched by freezes. Please come see for yourself."

Mr. Flager did not "come see" but sent his close associates, James E. Ingraham and Joseph R. Parrott, who returned to Palm Beach with bushels of produce and citrus and explained to Flagler that, while the freeze had killed almost all of the fruits and vegetables into what was then middle-Dade County, the region south of what is approximately today's 163rd Street in North Miami Beach was untouched by the horrific weather.

Flagler cabled Julia, asking, "Madam, what is it that you propose?" Her answer was to the point: "If you will extend your railroad to the shores of Biscayne Bay and build one of your great hotels, I will give you 50 acres for shops and yards plus half of my holdings north of the river and Mr. [William] Brickell will give you half of his property south of the river," and with that an agreement was made, a contract was signed and on April 15,1896, the first Florida East Coast train rolled into town followed, a week later, by the first passenger train.

Miami was incorporated on July 28,1896; the Royal Palm Hotel, on the banks of the Miami River, opened on December 31,1896; the rest, as they say, is history.

But there were no orange blossoms!

Miami Beach's recorded history goes back to 1870,when father and son Henry and Charles Lum sailboated on to a large sandbar east of Fort Dallas (which would later become Miami). Returning to Key West, they arranged to buy the sandbar and its submerged vicinity for $.35 per acre!

Returning to the area in 1882, they sold the property to Ezra Osborne and Elnathan Field for about $.75 an acre, clearing a hefty - for the time - profit. Osborne and Field, several years later, would sell the same property to John S. Collins (yes,THAT Collins!) and his son-in-law Thomas Pancoast for approximately $1.25 an acre.

Eventually, running short on money, Collins and Pancoast sold most of their holdings to the Lummus Brothers (for whom the great oceanside park on Miami Beach is named) and Indianapolis automobilist Carl Graham Fisher, who is considered the father of Miami Beach.

Fisher filled and built Miami Beach, incorporating the city in March of 1915. Several years later he erected the beautiful monument in Biscayne Bay dedicated to Florida's Empire Builder, the greatest single name in the history of the Sunshine State: Henry Morrison Flagler. Today the Flagler Monument, floodlit at night and visible from the causeways during the day, is a fitting tribute to two of Florida's most revered names.

Seth Bramson is considered Miami's foremost and leading historian. The author of 14 books on Florida transportation and south Florida local history, he is Company Historian of the Florida East Coast Railway and is Adjunct Professor of History at both Florida International University and BarryUniversity. See more of his work at www.lchaimmiamibook.com

All images courtesy of the collection of Myrna & Seth Bramson.

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